This week we begin a new monthly series, Shady Oak Best Practices,” which shares details on our favorite approaches to education and why they work. If friends ask why you send your kids to Shady Oak instead of a regular school, refer them to this series—and the science backing us up—for starters. 


The educational world often hears complaints about recess periods being an endangered species. Playtime wouldn’t be so easily classified as “optional” if we understood play not simply as “fun,” but as an essential element of learning by doing. Sometimes, humans seem to be the only species that’s forgotten this—you never see a cat scolding her kittens for “wasting time” wrestling or chasing strings when they should be learning to hunt, because cats of all ages instinctively know that’s how you learn to hunt and/or keep your skills sharp.  


It’s time our species erased the imaginary boundary between playing and learning. 


Combining Play and Learning Teaches Kids to Love Learning 


Too often, children’s attitude toward school (and chores) is that it’s something you do because some authority figure says you have to, and the quicker you get it out of the way so you can do something “fun,” the better. But when fun and learning are interwoven, kids get absorbed in the project, lose the desire to rush through things, and concentrate on doing their best because they want to. 


Combining Play and Learning Gives Kids a Sense of Sharing Control 


Even in sports with strict rules, the “play” participant feels more personal room for initiative and innovation, and less concern about doing things “the way they’re always done.” When children feel their initiative is valued and they have some say in the process, they’re more eager to cooperate for the sake of good results; they feel personally invested in how things turn out. 


Combining Play and Learning Teaches the Value of Trial and Error 


In many classrooms, kids who don’t grasp an explanation on the first round—usually an explanation delivered by the single-faceted methods of book or lecture—are dubbed “slow in the subject” and given the idea it’s no use trying harder. Or, worse, students hear “get 100%” until even academic geniuses are afraid to try anything they doubt they can immediately do perfectly. A world full of people who think that way is a world doomed to perpetual lack of progress. Better far that kids learn by emulating the freestyle game, where if you fall down or miss a shot, you pick yourself up and try again, or practice harder for next time, or invent a new and better way of doing it. 


At Shady Oak, we emphasize learning through play because it teaches kids to associate learning—and the eventual contributions they will make to the world as workers—with fulfillment, self-esteem, and initiative. 


Science Backs Us Up! Further Resources on the Topic